Special Session Summary It Was a Dark and Stormy Commercial Break: Empirical Studies of Consumer Responses to Advertising Stories

Kent Grayson, London Business School
Mark Ritson, University of Minnesota
[ to cite ]:
Kent Grayson and Mark Ritson (1998) ,"Special Session Summary It Was a Dark and Stormy Commercial Break: Empirical Studies of Consumer Responses to Advertising Stories", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 24.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Page 24



Kent Grayson, London Business School

Mark Ritson, University of Minnesota

Over the past decade, some consumer researchers have argued that some (if not many) advertisements have more in common with stories, anecdotes and fables than with arguments (e.g., Stern 1994, Deighton, et. al. 1992). This special session was designed to highlight some recent research that explores this proposition.

In their paper, "How Does Advertising Mean What It Does? The Impact of 'Real Consumers’ in Commercials," Grayson and Vehill presented subjects with commercials that featured non-celebrity endorsers-for example, a husband and wife recommending their favorite laundry detergent. To test the way in which consumers perceive reality as depicted in advertising, they informed some subjects that the commercials featured real consumers, while others were informed that the commercials featured actors. Subjects who thought the performers were actors rated the advertisement and product more favorably than those who thought the performers were real consumers. Implications for understanding advertising as a fictive (as opposed to a strictly informative) medium were discussed.

Mulvey and Stern’s research examined "The Invisible Persona: Who speaks advertising?" A critical advertising decision is the choice of a persona-a character who "speaks" the within-ad message. The authors presented newspaper advertisements to subjects and asked them about the role of an advertising persona. Findings indicate that even when no speaker is visible in the advertisements, respondents invent one-their interpretations refer to someone "who is speaking." However, the identity of the persona is unfixed, and among the agents presumed to be speaking are: the brand (Visa), the product category (consumer credit), orCinterestinglyCa credit card user (self, friend, stereotypical student). Some of the informants identify with the persona, whereas others consider themselves theobject of the persona’s message. So, too, is the personality of the persona diversely described as a savior, a reliable friend, or a tempting devil.

Ritson’s paper, "The Man Gets Out of the Shower and . . . . An Ethnomethodological Study of Advertising Interpretation" argues that advertising perception is so automatic that standard consumer research techniques may not be optimal for understanding it. One potentially appropriate technique is ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967). In this study, a 'quasi experimental breech’ (Garfinkel 1967) was introduced by showing subjects only the first third of a 30-second television ad. Subjects were then divided into groups (which were tape recorded) and asked to 'work out’ how the ad concluded. Results suggest a number of 'interpretive heuristics’; sources of semantic guidance that exist within the advertising genre and the lifeworlds of the informants and which operate as a basic structure for the interpretation of advertising meaning. Eight interpretive heuristics were identified in the study.

To place the session within the context of previous research on advertising, Julie Edell traced the perspectives that researchers have taken to understand advertising perception. She argued that advertising research began with a focus on the stimulus, then moved to include the perceiver. Recent approaches to advertising research, like the ones at this session, bring together a focus on the consumer, the stimulus, and the broader social context.

Larry Percy offered several caveats regarding the research presented. While they offered useful ways to explore meaning in communication, it is important to consider how appropriate these methods are for advertising. Because the methods used to solicit responses in all of these papers required more involvement from respondents than an everyday advertising encounter, he recommends caution in applying the findings to advertising practice.


Deighton, John; Daniel Romer and Josh McQueen (1989), "Using Drama to Persuade," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (December), 362-372.

Garfinkel, H. (1967), Studies in Ethnomethodology, London: Prentice Hall International.

Stern, Barbara (1994), "Classical and Vignette Advertising Dramas: Structural Models, Formal Analysis, and Consumer Effects," Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (March), 601-615.